Ray LaMontagne “really changed something for me when I saw him play,” recalls Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Madi Diaz of the indie rock duo Riothorse Royale.
The show was in December 2005 at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, where Diaz attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music with Emily Greene, the other half of Riothorse Royale.
Diaz wasn’t the only one in the audience impressed with LaMontagne’s performance that night.
LaMontagne approached the front of the stage that night with “quiet grace,” as a cigarette dangled from his lips and puffs of smoke billowed “around his mountain-man beard,” the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly wrote in its review.
“The svelte, reserved singer, who barely uttered five words above a whisper all evening, wore jeans and those tan work boots favored by New England laborers,” the Phoenix said. “But though he resembles the adventurous lost-spirit protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, that impression changed the minute he started playing 'Oh Mama.' What he lacked in small-talk skills he more than made up for by speaking the language of his own heart in song. He continued to move through selections from Trouble, his 2004 RCA debut, peppering 'Narrow Escape' with harmonica embellishments and offering emotive renditions of 'Jolene,' 'Shelter,' and 'Hold You in My Arms' that showcased his rafter-shaking vocal cords. Equally affecting was the softer, breathier tone he switched to as the night progressed.”
Like LaMontagne, Diaz has received accolades for her voice. After a solo show on Long Island in 2011, for example, No Depression blogger Craig Young said Diaz “captivated the crowd at the Patchogue Theatre with her powerful yet sensitive voice, her absolutely heartfelt lyrics and a fantastic band to back her up.”
Diaz was raised in Pennsylvania’s Amish country and started writing songs at age 16 after her family moved to Philadelphia. She achieved some fame in the City of Brotherly Love when she appeared as a student in Rock School, Don Argott's documentary about the Paul Green School of Rock Music.
Diaz launched a solo career in 2006 after a stint with the indie rock group Talk Radio while attending Berklee. She released four solo albums, including the most recent one, 2014’s Phantom, on Nettwork Records. Her songs have been featured on Nashville, Pretty Little Liars, and other TV shows.
Though she attended Berklee with Greene, who was born in Miami, their musical careers were separate until they met in the Los Angeles area. They cut an EP entitled The Guest House and will be touring throughout the country in April and May with Minneapolis’ Hippo Campus.
Besides the LaMontagne concert, Diaz points to other memorable shows.
“I was 15 when my dad took me to see Tool at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City in May 2001,” she recalls. “It blew my mind.
“The energy in the room was tangible and intense. It was just pouring from the stage. They are masters. It was truly breathtaking, especially being 15, I had certainly never witnessed anything like it before.”
Diaz says she saw “rock at its most beautiful, its best” two years ago during the FYF Fest at the LA Sports Arena & Exposition Park in downtown Los Angeles.
“I loved seeing Interpol,” she says. "Interpol has this total fluid effortlessness in their skills. It's like watching actual rock royalty."
Switching genres, she says the shows of the Time Jumpers — studio musicians who formed a rollicking Western swing group — were the best live bluegrass performances she has seen.
“I used to go and see the Time Jumpers play in Nashville as often as I could — any Monday night from 2008 to 2012 at the Station Inn. The Time Jumpers sound like an old radio show of a golden era. Their skills are totally unmatched — cream of the crop, especially in Nashville with its prestige for session players. You can tell that the Time Jumpers go from working at the studio to the stage to pour their hearts out, and there is serious love for each others' abilities.”